2 December 2012

Untranslatable concepts

In French, one can say Je suis seul (I am alone) or Je me sens seul (I feel alone), but nothing as baldly distressing as “I am lonely” or “I am lonesome.”
says Henry Cole in the New Yorker. Suggesting other lonely French words such as esseulé or délaissé would probably not change his mind, since they are arguably not an exact translation for lonely. Can one then say that there are words in one language without an identical counterpart in another language? As a second example, several people told me (with patriotic pride) that the Romanian dor cannot be translated in any other language. I have trouble seeing how it is substantially different from longing.

I believe this kind of affirmation (like many declarative sentences) can be read in a strong and a weak sense.
  • Strong interpretation: words in one language can convey meaning that cannot be expressed in another language. I would say that this position is obviously false, at least for living languages with a similar level of complexity.
  • Weak interpretation: words come with their own subtext and connotations, which do not survive translation. This is obviously true, but not particularly interesting. For instance, the gender of inanimate objects varies from language to language; so does the emphasis placed on it. Words are also colored by the literature that uses them (Proust's madeleine comes to mind; I do not believe finger cake has similar baggage).
Is there some intermediate and valid position that is strong enough to be relevant ? Where is Cole's own point of view on this continuum ?

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